Take A Peek Into The Burgeoning World Of Pen Collection
Take a peek into the burgeoning world of pen collection, where avid hobbyists turn to pens as a way to define history and shine a light on the value and collectability of writing instruments.
Lisa Anderson isn’t in the habit of cursing her husband, but it wasn’t always that way. Before she knew him, “we used to bid against each other on eBay,” says Anderson, president of the Pen Collectors of America Association. And that made her mad.
“I would sit in Tampa where I lived and curse him out, because he would outbid me,” Anderson recalls.
Too many times her husband, then just an unknown competitive buyer, would snatch away a prized, coveted writing instrument, just when Anderson thought it was hers. It incensed her that her conscientious mindset was doing her in. “I was a single mom and wouldn’t bid as high as he would,” Anderson says, mindful of the groceries, school supplies and other places she needed to direct her cash flow.
Eventually, the bidding wars became so common that one day one of them put a stop to it. “I don’t remember who emailed who,” Anderson says, “but one of us emailed the other and said, ‘This is silly. We’re costing each other money.’ We called a truce.”
It became far more than just a truce, though. Today, Anderson and her bidding nemesis, Brian, are married and both dedicated to collecting pens – together, rather than against each other. After meeting initially in Chicago in 2003 at a collectors event (post bidding wars), the two became friends but then drifted apart over the next several years. In 2007, Brian found Anderson again via Facebook and the two started dating long distance. By 2009, Anderson, once an English professor in Tampa, had moved herself and her two kids, now 19 and 21, to Wisconsin. She and Brian were married a year later, using one of the many pens they’d collected to sign the license. Over time, they realized they had a lot more in common besides pens. “Our values and dreams were very similar,” she says.
Those dreams included collecting more pens. Pretty soon the two realized that they might have to start selling some of their substantial pen collections if they were going to buy more. A sale here and there evolved into a few transactions online and eventually an online retail store, which they opened up last year, after a couple of years of casual sales. Last November they followed that up with a brick and mortar store in Appleton, WI, where they now live.
But what drives the interest of Anderson and her husband (and the thousands of other people across the globe who collect writing instruments) in pens and what they look for in writing instruments is often different than what motivates pen buyers in the promotional product marketplace. Whereas ad specialty clients are focused on brand identity, promotional power and the durability and performance of a pen, collectors simply have an eye for a certain style, manufacturer or essence of a pen – and that might hit them at any given moment.
For the Andersons, it’s not about collecting the fanciest, most expensive pens, but the brand they’re drawn to the most – Esterbrook. With their own collection worth more than $2,000 in pens (their most valuable probably no more than $1,200), most of them are under $50, says Anderson. There are certain collectors who seek out pens worth hundreds of dollars, even as high as $100,000, Anderson says, with gemstones encrusted on them.
“Those generally are not used to write with,” she acknowledges, and they’re often locked away for safe keeping – a shame, according to many collectors, when the point of collecting is to look at and use what you’ve amassed. “There may be some pens that you buy and you use for very special occasions, like a favorite pair of earrings you wouldn’t wear every day,” Anderson says, “but most people who collect pens use their pens.”
A wedding notwithstanding, many pen collectors are as passionate about the hobby as the Andersons. Often, many collectors have an eye for a specific pen brand or color. For Joel Hamilton, owner of Inkpen Vintage Fountain Pen in Alamo Gordo, NM, that means collecting Parker pens more than anything else, something he’s been doing for 25 years.
He specifically searches for Parker writing instruments that were made before 1960. Like many collectors, Hamilton’s first interest in pens came after he gave a fountain pen to his wife for a gift. He’s written with one before, but not for years, and, he adds with disdain, the last time he picked up a fountain pen it was for the chore of practicing penmanship repeatedly in third grade.
One day he picked up the pen he’d given to his wife and tried it out. He realized it was a far more enjoyable writing experience than the fountain pen he was forced to use over and over again in his youth. Suddenly, writing instruments seemed sexier than he’d ever imagined.
“I thought, ‘I might like to have a couple for myself,’” Hamilton recalls. “A couple turned into 10, and 10 turned into 100, and 100 turned into a business.”
Today, Hamilton sells and repairs pens, and has a personal collection of more than 600 pens, all of which he says are useable. “If I have a pen that I cannot use, I don’t have that pen for long,” Hamilton says. Admittedly, rotating through a 600-item collection takes time, but Hamilton guesses at one point or another all 600 are eventually picked up and used at some point, with about 150 in rotation on any given day.
Like promotional product buyers who gravitate to purchasing writing instruments because of their wide use by consumers every day, pen collectors also view their prizes in a utilitarian manner. Unlike fine wine or paintings, pen collectors often use what they collect. In fact, while most don’t seek out pens with branded imprints on them, many collectors are open (or perhaps indifferent) to collecting promotional pens as long as the pen is from the time period or manufacturer they’re looking for.
“I don’t particularly look for imprinted pens,” says Hamilton. But he also doesn’t avoid them. He has one pen with the Buster Brown shoe logo on it from the early 20th century. Another has Red Goose Shoes, an early shoe producer from the mid-1800s. Hamilton, in fact, says he enjoys the logos because they add to the pen’s history and story. But plenty of collectors, he says, avoid logoed pens and even those embossed with a person’s name.
All of which begs the question: What are pen collectors looking for when they collect pens? It’s hard to generalize. For most it’s a personal preference on color, style, functionality or some other feature, much like a distributor’s clients. The Andersons, for example, love the color blue, so any pen in that color scheme is of interest.
Still for others it’s all about the pen manufacturer. Anderson tends to search out Esterbrook pens, often the brand she and her husband had bidding wars over years ago. The pair treasures them in part because they’re no longer manufactured. “Sixteen years ago when I started collecting, Esterbrooks were cheap and easy to find, and easy to repair,” Anderson says. “They were sort of like Timex watches – they were never supposed to be flashy and fancy, but dependable.”
And still other collectors actually look for logoed pens. For some, Anderson says, an older pen with the imprint from a parent’s company is a treasured find. For others, like Hamilton, it’s one particular element or feature of the pen that’s often the draw. “Nibs are what attract me,” he says. While most people don’t ever think about the part of the pen “that applies ink to paper,” as Hamilton explains it, he’s aware of it all the time. Some are metallic and others oblique, while some are flexible and others not, but perhaps better at offering a type of shading to make handwriting look more polished.
Like most of her fellow collectors, Anderson subscribes to the mindset of slowing down periodically, noticing historical items (which is perhaps a nicer way to say relics) and appreciating writing instruments from another time.
“There’s a movement that seems to be out there – to be a bit more purposeful, getting back to more mindfulness, slowing down, downsizing and de-cluttering,” Anderson says. All of which goes hand in hand, she believes, with “taking the time” to sit down and handwrite a letter, “to do something besides dash off an email.”
Romantic thinking? Perhaps, but Anderson and other collectors who also sell pens notice an increasing number of people entering their stores to find a special pen to sign a new mortgage agreement or a bank loan for a business they started.
“If you’re going to sign something meaningful, you want to use a pen that’s nicer and has meaning, too,” Anderson says, “You want something better than the simple ballpoint you stole from your office.”
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